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How risky is investment in A.J. Burnett?

| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 9:10 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett stands in the dugout during the ninth inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

Every pitcher is moving toward an unavoidable cliff. Every pitcher, if he pitches long enough, will suffer performance drop-off. But the chance for decline increases sharply after a pitcher's early 30s.

Consider former Philadelphia Phillie Roy Halladay. He was considered perhaps the game's best pitcher entering 2012. He had logged at least 220 innings in six straight seasons. He was 34, but there were no warning signs.

But in spring 2012, his velocity dropped. The Phillies downplayed concern, but Halladay's performance worsened. He changed his pitch mix. He suffered a shoulder injury, had surgery last year and threw just 62 innings in 2013. He announced his retirement in December.

Free agent starting pitcher A.J. Burnett decided to pitch this season after mulling retirement, the Tribune-Review reported Tuesday. Burnett immediately became one of the top free agent starting pitchers available, with 15 teams expressing interest by Friday, according to MLB Network's Peter Gammons. While Burnett has gone 26-21 with a 3.40 ERA over his past two seasons as a Pirate, he also celebrated his 37th birthday in January. Should potential buyers beware? Is the workload part of the Pirates' reluctance to offer Burnett market value?

If you erase Game 1 of the National League Division Series, Burnett carries few red flags. He led the NL in strikeout and groundball rate last season. His trademark knuckle-curve had bite, and his two-seam fastball averaged a season-high 92.9 mph in September.

But Burnett also missed 24 games with a calf strain. He has thrown 2,353 23 innings in his career and more than 40,000 pitches. Since 2008, the list of pitchers 37 or older who produced seasons of three wins above replacement or better — a stat accounting for a player's total value — is a short one: Hiroki Kuroda (twice), R.A. Dickey, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Randy Johnson and Bartolo Colon. Only 13 starting pitchers 37 or older have logged enough innings to qualify for an ERA title since 2008.

MLB Network analyst Ron Darling, who had a 13-year career as a pitcher, was released on his 35th birthday in 1995. Darling thinks Burnett can pitch effectively in 2014 but notes the mileage is a concern.

“If you can get (Burnett) for a one-year deal, I think a lot of teams out there would be foolish not to grab him,” Darling said. “But you only have so many (pitches) you can throw. When you have two thousand innings under your belt, things don't react like they used to.”

Fangraphs.com conducted a study on the aging of starting pitchers and found by most measures — velocity, strikeouts rate, walks rate, runs allowed — talent begins to erode at 30, and each following year the decline accelerates.

Burnett's primary sign of aging has been in velocity. From 2004-09, his average four-seam fastball never dipped below 94.2 mph in a season. His four-seam fastball averaged 92.5 mph last season.

“In the spring of 1992 (A's pitching coach) Dave Duncan said to me, ‘Do you remember the Ron Darling that pitched for the '86 Mets? I said, ‘Yeah, of course I do.' He said, ‘Well, you need to forget him,' ” Darling recalled. “I was taken back when he said that, but he was right. That young kid was gone. ... The hard part is taking the macho out of it. You spend your whole life being the biggest, baddest guy on the block, and now you are not, and you have to recognize that.”

Burnett already has had to adjust. After struggling with the New York Yankees, Burnett enjoyed a rebound in Pittsburgh, in part, because of pitcher-friendly PNC Park and a transition to the DH-less league but also because he changed his pitch mix.

Dan Brooks' website brooksbaseball.net is devoted to pitching data. Brooks took notice of an adjustment Burnett made in 2012.

“A.J. Burnett is not a guy who has shown an incredible decline in stuff, but he has been a guy who has changed the way he has pitched over the last couple of years,” Brooks said. “With declines in velocity, you can get changes in pitch usage. When pitchers change the way they are approaching hitters, that signals they realize something is different this year as opposed to last year. They are trying to compensate. (Burnett) has become much more of a two-seam (fastball) dominant pitcher where he was a four-seam dominant pitcher.”

No analyst can predict Burnett's immediate future, but the risk increases with age.

“Paying for a free agent pitcher is kind of like buying a car,” Brooks said. “You drive it off the lot, and it loses value. You're just hoping it doesn't break down while you own it.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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